Monday, April 30, 2012

IELTS Task 2 Life in the present or future

I know I have not been able to post much in the last few days (but will be back in a few days with an overview of Task 1 of the writing test). Today's blog post has another model answer on the topic of present V future, which do you think is more important. The question asks "to what extent do you agree or disagree" so there is a lot of scope in any answer which can take a balanced view or agree or disagree 100%! 

My answer seeks to take a more balanced approach and starts with a quote, the full quote being: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Starting an essay with a quote from a famous person is quite a good way to start an introduction!

Question: Some people think it is best to think about the present and consider any thought about the future to be a complete waste of time and effort. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. It is clear that some people live only for the present moment and pay scant regard for the future. This kind of person is more often than not, satisfied in a spontaneous life of hedonistic experience. There are also however, other kinds of people who spend their time living in and contemplating possible or potential future eventualities that may or may not come to pass. Neither way of thinking is satisfactory is it is pursued to the exclusion of the other, it is always better to live in the present moment whilst at the same time keep one eye focussed on future opportunities and plans that require thought and time in order to achieve short term and long term goals.

It is in fact essential to dedicate some time and effort with all due diligence to the present. Every single human being has certain needs that must always be satisfied within the scope of the present. Necessities such as food, shelter and clothing as well as more abstract needs like belonging, esteem are all needs that cannot be catered for if a person lives only for tomorrow. There are also certain aspects of life such as family, work and education that cannot be neglected and require almost constant attention in the present although this does not necessarily mean that one should therefore start to ignore possible future opportunities or possibilities; there is a clear need to prioritise current undertakings in order to facilitate future opportunities.

Putting in place plans and mechanisms to achieve future success is also important. Goals and ambitions are an inherent aspect of the human condition. Most individuals will aspire to something that will hopefully allow them to move onwards and upwards to something bigger, better and ultimately more fulfilling and challenging. Most things that are aspirational and have value in a person’s life are predicated upon the requirement of investing a large amount of effort over a sustained period of time. It is therefore necessary to think about the future in order to be able to set achievable goals can thus enable people to progress in their work and educational lives.

To conclude, there is not perfect way to divide a focus on living in the present and/or living in the past; the appropriate ratio of division will differ from person to person. What is true however is that no single individual should dedicate all their thoughts and efforts to either living in the moment or planning exclusively for the future. Life is all about a balance or equilibrium that is individually determined between the two dichotomies which should be achievable by each and every one of us.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

How to write a good IELTS Writing Task 2 Part 2

Last week we looked at the first two steps in how to write a task 2 essay and this week I will finish explaining a good process approach in being able to write a great task 2. Next week, I will explain how to do an excellent task 1 essay!

Step 3 - Planning your essay

Now that you have looked at the question and got the information you need about exactly what the question is asking, the next stage is to make a plan and start putting ideas together. This is a challenge but really the hardest part of understanding the question has been done already. 

Many students think that writing a plan is a waste of time and that the time they spend planning would be better used writing! A good plan will make your essay coherent and structured and very easy for the examiner to read. If you think you can’t spare the time to plan, practice your writing so that you can write enough in the time left after you have planned your essays. Planning is essential.

There are several different parts of an essay that are all required; Essays always have three parts; an introduction, the main part, and a conclusion.

What are the functions of each part of the essay?

  • Introduction – (1 Paragraph) - Comment on the subject and the way you are going to approach it. Define any key terms. This should be one paragraph.

  • Main part – (2-3 Paragraphs) - Present your main points, argument, and supporting evidence as logically and clearly as possible. This should be two or three paragraphs.  For a higher band score (7 or more) you might need to have longer body paragraphs or maybe even 4 or 5 paragraphs to extend and support your ideas

  • Conclusion (1 Paragraph) - Bring your ideas together into a conclusion, clearly state your opinion and add any final comments or opinions. This should be one paragraph.

When planning, the main part will need the most thought. It is necessary to plan a logical and coherent argument which will lead to your conclusions.  Make a plan including all the issues you wish to raise and the evidence you will use to support them.  We will look at planning and the functions of each part of the essay (inroduciton / body / conclusion) in future posts.

Step 4 - Writing your essay

Once you have an essay plan and as you are writing for an exam it is important to get the essay started with a good introduction. The body paragraphs should start with one of the issues in that you feel really comfortable with. This will give you the confidence to go on and write the rest.  Organize your topics into a logical order. An essay should be a coherent piece of writing. If your essay is not well organized the examiner will find it hard to understand it, even if the points you raise are good and well supported. 

Use language that is easy to understand. Try not to repeat the same word in a paragraph; instead try to think of alternative words (synonyms) to express the same idea. In an academic essay try to avoid using “I” and “you” and try to avoid writing expressions such as “I think that” or “In my opinion” as they are unnecessary and are not suitable for academic writing.

Exam tip! Do not use abbreviating words, such as hasn’t, didn’t. Write them in their full form, has not, did not = these are only used in informal or spoken styles of English

Things to be aware of when writing:

  • Avoid repeating yourself to make the essay longer. This tactic will be spotted immediately and will gain you no marks. 
  • Do not copy the wording and phrasing from the essay question
  • Do not memorize whole paragraphs or long phrases e.g. some people might agree with this but others may hold the opposite contention.
  • Vary your vocabulary where possible using synonyms where you can.
  • Do not use “I”, “we”, or “you” in your essay because these words are not suitable for the tone of an academic essay.
  • Do not obviously state your opinion; “In my opinion”; “I Think that…”. The examiner will know your opinion from your writing and this just wastes time.
  • Do not use abbreviations or contractions.   E.g. it’s, they’re
  • Write on every line unless you are leaving a gap to show that the end and start of a new paragraph.

Step 5 - Reviewing and correcting your essay

We all make mistakes when we write. Even native speakers! So when you have completed your essay re-read it and look for any mistakes you may not have noticed while you were writing it. Look for any spelling or grammatical errors and correct them. Use the checklist on this page to be sure you have thought of everything. Now that you have checked and corrected your essay it is ready to hand in. Remember to put your name and student ID number on your exam paper before you hand it in.   

Writing Essays - A Review Checklist:

1, Are there any errors in grammar? 
    1. Subject and verb agreements
    2. Tense usage Missing words
    3. Is the punctuation and spelling correct?
2. Have any words been repeated too often?
    1. Can I think of any synonyms for repeated words?
3. Have I covered two or three main ideas in the body?
    1. Does each main idea have its own paragraph?
    2. Have I given enough detail to support my ideas?
4. Have I written enough? Remember the word length target is a minimum not a maximum!

5. Is the style appropriate?
    1. Are there any slang words? If so change them
    2. Is the essay clear? 
    3. Is the essay easy to read for the examiner?
6. Does every sentence make sense? If one doesn't, rewrite it so it does

7. Are the paragraphs properly laid out, with a one line gap between each paragraph? Is there a clear topic sentence as the first sentence of each body paragrpah 

8. Is there the right number of paragraphs, and are they the right size? 

9. Are the introduction and conclusion effective and contain an opinion? 
    1. The introduction must set out what the essay will be about
    2. The conclusion should show that you have dealt with the topic intelligently.
10. Does the essay answer the question? If it does not you need to change the thesis statement in the introduction and the restatement of the thesis in the conclusion.

    Exam Tip The minimum word count for an essay is a minimum. You should always aim to exceed the minimum and try to write ten to twenty words more than is required. Remember that words you copied from the question will not be counted.

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012

    How to write a good IELTS Writing Task 2 Part 1

    Most students find essay writing difficult, however it is frequently used in schools and universities to evaluate students’ knowledge and their ability to present it in a coherent way. It requires the use of many skills; analysis, interpretation, and expression Writing an essay in an examination is an even more difficult task as students have little time to think and produce an essay and exam nerves may cause people to not work as well as they could if they were not working under pressure.

    What follows is my guide to the five simple steps that I use to help make the task of writing an essay in an examination a little easier.

    Step 1 - Be Prepared

    Before you even go into the exam room think about the common sorts of questions and topics that could be asked. The topics I will consider in future posting will all be common IELTS topics. The topics covered will be: 

    • Education
    • Technology
    • Culture
    • Society
    • Global issues

    Before actually starting to write an essay it is important to understand the common types of question words so that you can apply them. Below is a table of Explanations of common words found in Essay Titles (these are used in academic essays and some are not often used often in the IELTS test whereas others are a lot more common and occur almost every week!). Understanding the key question words helps candidates to answer the question fully. 

    Look for similarities and differences, and perhaps reach a conclusion about which is best.
    Look at differences and conclude with which is best
    Give your judgement about the truth of facts, the merits of theories and opinions. Provide evidence to support your ideas.
    Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase and look at different definitions of the same thing.
    Give a detailed or graphic account
    Give reasons for and against.
    Make an appraisal on the value of something
    Give reasons for
    Give examples to support something
    Clarify the meaning of something, and give your own judgement.
    Give the main features of something. 

    Step 2 - Tackling the question

    Essay titles can appear impossible at first. Do not allow yourself to be put off by a hard or difficult essay title. Think about the question and what it is asking. Sometimes it is easier to break the question down into smaller questions. Avoid the trap of simply writing everything you know about the topic and remember to keep the essay on topic. Answer the question that has been asked and not the question you would like to have been asked!

    I always try to break a question down into smaller questions and the answers for these questions are very useful when it comes to writing my introductions.

    I will then paraphrase the main question so that I can answer it directly and this helps me to stay on topic.

    Example one
    Most people think that students should evaluate their schools and teachers. Do you agree or disagree?
    First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • What is meant by students?
    • What is meant by evaluate?
     For this type of essay it is important to decide whether:

    You agree that evaluations of teachers and schools by students are a good idea and why 


    You disagree that evaluations of teachers and schools by students is a bad idea and why.

    Example two
    Technology is always changing and has a direct effect on our daily lives. The internet is perhaps the most important invention ever, what do you believe to be more important?

    The first sentence is just a general statement to introduce the topic of technology. First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • What is meant by technology?
    • Is there any other type of technology that is more important than the Internet?

    For this essay it is important to decide whether:

    The Internet is the most important invention ever and why.

    There are other technologies that are more important than the Internet. What they are and why they are more important.  

    Example three
    More and more students are choosing to leave their own countries and educational systems and go and study overseas. Do you think this is a good or bad thing?

    First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • What countries do people go abroad to study in?
    • What kind of students study abroad?
    • Why do they study overseas?
     For this essay it is important to decide whether:

    Studying abroad is beneficial for students and explain why


    Studying abroad brings no great benefits and explain why 

    Example four

    Lots of students are choosing to study abroad either at school or at university. Discuss the benefits and disadvantages of overseas studies.

    Give reasons for your answer and include relevant examples from your own experience and knowledge. 

    This question is very different from example three which just wants an answer explaining whether overseas study is good or bad. This question although it looks very similar to question three and is asking for an essay giving both the benefits and disadvantages of studying abroad. 

    First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • What countries do people go abroad to study in?
    • Why do they study overseas?
    • What are the benefits of studying abroad?
    • What disadvantages are there of studying overseas?

    For this essay it is important to decide whether:

    This is an argument, discussion, or explanation essay: This example is a discussion essay
    What information the question requires for an appropriate answer.

    What the benefits are of studying in another country and what the drawbacks are

    What the drawbacks are of studying overseas

    Example five 
    How has your thinking been influenced by the community around you? 

    First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • What does the community consist of?
    • Has the community influenced you?
    • How has the community affected you?

    For this essay it is important to decide whether:
    This is an argument, discussion, or explanation essay: This example is an explanation essay
    What information the question requires for an appropriate answer.

    How your thinking been influenced by the community and how it has affected you.

    Example six 
    Technology can bring many benefits, however it can also cause problems. Should people focus on the advantages that technology gives or on the disadvantages?

    First break the question down into smaller questions: 

    • How do we benefit from technology?
    • What are some of the benefits?
    • What disadvantages are there of technology?
    • Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?

    For this essay it is important to decide whether:
    This is an argument, discussion, or explanation essay: This example is an argument essay

    Technology is of great benefit and people should ignore the problems.

    Technology is sometimes bad and that people should consider the problems that technology causes.

    Exam tip
    Everyone answers an essay question in a different way and there is no single correct answer as long as your essay is logical and your ideas are supported. If everyone approached every task in the same way the world would be a very boring place!  

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    The Big Writing Mistakes

    In this post I will cover what I think are some of the major mistakes that IELTS candidates make when it comes to writing tasks one and two. There are some things that candidates do again and again and I can only assume that there is some IELTS preparation school somewhere that is giving out bad advice that they think will benefit candidates.

    1 Memorising Chunks of English
    The first problem I will cover is the memorising of “chunks” of English that a candidate just inserts into their writing. It is very obvious to spot this kind of behaviour. Either the English will be far too general (that it could be used in any essay) or it will stand out as it will be grammatically perfect and this will not match the accuracy of grammar used in the rest of the essay. I know that certain IELTS tutorial schools teach candidates to rote learn an introduction or conclusion BUT if the examiner thinks that this has been done (and a section memorised) then you can lose marks.

    Here is one example of a memorised chunk used as an introduction:

    While some people think that overall this is an innovative solution to the problem, others have the opposite contention. I would have to conclude therefore that for all the reasons outlined above, the issue is still in a state of flux and that there is as of yet, still no simple answer that is readily available and applicable to all people and to suit all circumstances.
    Here is another example which is slightly better (in that the candidate can at least put in the topics of the essay where required) but you can still see that it is a memorised paragraph and this would be very obvious if the rest of the essay was just not written to the same standard (and would have lots of very basic grammar mistakes and spelling mistakes!

    Issues related to university education produce many advantages for everyone and have been continuously debated in many sections of modern society. Society is split on this topic, some prefer to see the inherently positive aspects of university education while others focus on the drawbacks. It might be possible here to elucidate some of the positives and negatives in this essay
    TIP – do not memorise huge chunks of English to add into your essay. You can however learn some grammatical patterns to use e.g. Not only ….. but also…..

    You can learn some quotations to add to your essay from famous people that might add support to your arguments and are particularly useful in introductions and conclusions.

    Remember that memorising a paragraph is obvious and will negatively effect your score.

    Solution: Make sure you write in your own words and if you must memorise, memorise patterns or short quotes NOT whole paragraphs.

    2 Copying from the Question

    Let’s have a look at a very general education related question:
    Lots of students are choosing to study abroad either at school or at university. Discuss the benefits and disadvantages of overseas studies.
    What happens (sometimes) is that candidates will copy from the question and say something like the following in their introduction (or conclusion):

    I think that Lots of students are choosing to study abroad either at school or at university and there are many benefits and disadvantages of overseas studies.
    Let’s look at that sentence again and highlight the bits that are copied directly from the question

    I think that Lots of students are choosing to study abroad either at school or at university and there are many benefits and disadvantages of overseas studies.

    Candidates sometimes also tend to copy parts of questions into their topic sentences:

    Example Question 1: Choosing to study abroad either at school or at university has many benefits.

    Again, let’s highlight the copied parts:

    Choosing to study abroad either at school or at university has many benefits.

    Example Question 2: On the other hand, choosing to study abroad either at school or at university has a lot of disadvantages.

    We can again highlight the copied parts:

    On the other hand, choosing to study abroad either at school or at university has a lot of disadvantages.

    Candidates need to be able to paraphrase (write in their own words) or be able to use different synonyms (word that have the same or a similar meaning) to make their work different. Candidates can lose a lot of marks from copying from the questions!

    Solution: learn how to paraphrase for example by leaning to turn active into passive (or vice versa). You can also broaden your vocabulary so that you don’t repeat yourself by using the same words all the time and this will make it a lot easier to paraphrase any question you may be asked

    3 Not Writing enough

    Task 1 requires candidates to write 150 words and task 2 requires 250 words. This is a minimum and will affect your score if you do not write enough. Candidates will be heavily penalised if they do not write enough and this could push what would otherwise be a good essay (and a good score) down one or two bands.

    Solution: practice writing under timed conditions so that you can easily write the minimum in the time allowed.  You can also know how many words you write for each line and then you can very easily count how many words you have written quickly. Remember that phrases you have copied from the question will not be counted in your word count!

    4 Not Answering the Question

    This can happen in a number of ways and can take a few different forms. Sometimes it might be due to a misunderstanding of the question or it may be due to the candidate not having enough time to answer all the different parts of the question.

    Some questions can have quite a few things to write about. For example, questions that require  you to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of something AND give your opinion; in this type of question you need to highlight three different things in your answer! If a candidate misses out just one thing, they will lose marks as though they had only answered half the question.

    Sometimes candidates do read the question and go off on a tangent; they answer their own question which barely relates to the topic. Being able to answer the question as it is set if a vital academic skill and candidates should not try to answer their own question.

    Solution: Read the question and make a plan before you start writing and you should be able to stay fully on topic.

    5 Using the Wrong Structure

    The final type of mistake is where the essay does not have the three parts that are required. All essays need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. There are also heavy penalties for not using paragraphs or for writing ideas out using bullet points or other inappropriate ways (lists for example).

    Solution: Practice being able to write in full paragraphs using topic sentences and support sentences. Make sure you leave a one line space between paragraphs so the examiner can easily see where each paragraph starts and finishes. 

    Saturday, March 3, 2012

    How the Writing test is graded

    We have already looked at an overview of the IELTS writing test  and this posting will look in more detail at how the writing test is graded.

    It is really important for  candidates to understand how the test is scored because some mistakes can be  easily avoided by knowing exactly what the examiner is looking for and how the writing us graded.

    Writing scores are calculated based on four different criteria, and each of the four different criteria will be given a score from 0 to 9. All the criteria count equally and your total score is the average of adding them all together and then dividing by four:
    • Task response – How well (or how completely) candidates answer the question
    • Coherence and cohesion – How well the piece of writing links together (flows), how good paragraphs usage is and whether sentences are linked well with good use of referencing.
    • Lexical resource – Level and appropriate use of  vocabulary
    • Grammatical range and accuracy – Mistakes in grammar and how difficult the structures are that are used in the piece of writing
    These criteria are used to grade candidate writing and all examiners must mark any piece of writing in the same way. If you know anything about statistical research, this means that the examiners try to take an objective approach (in that different examiners would give the same marks to the same piece of writing) and thus the IELTS test is a reliable one!

    One very common question I get asked by students is: “I heard that the IELTS test is easier at xxxxx (another IELTS test venue), is this true?” I have to promise all candidates that it does not matter at all where you take your test; all examiners grade consistently and the people responsible for the test go to great lengths to ensure that this is the case and that the marking is consistent and to the highest possible standard.

    The details of the criteria for the scores are in the public domain and released by the British Council. All candidates would be advised to read through them. I will in any case take a look at the four different criteria. I will go into more detail in later posts so that you can really understand what the exam is looking for and can avoid many common mistakes.

    If you wish to look at the publically available grading criteria, you can access them at the two links below:

    The grading for task 1 and 2 are very similar but there are some differences, especially in the first category (Task response in Task 2 and Task achievement in Task 2) but all the other categories are the same for both task 1 and task 2.

    Candidates sometimes tend to focus more on one or other of the criteria in their preparation (normally they tend to focus on grammar) and perhaps forget about the other ones (normally these will be cohesion and coherence and task achievement). It really is important to remember that all four criteria count equally and they all need to be thought about.

    IELTS Scoring examples

    As I said before, all writing scores are calculated based on the four different criteria (each being given a score from 0 to 9 with all the criteria counting equally towards your final score). 

    Suppose that a candidate scores as follows:
    • Task Response: 7
    • Coherence: 7
    • Lexical Resource: 7
    • Grammar: 7

    Their total score would be 7+7+7+7 = 28.
    This score of 28 would be divided by 4 to give a final score of 7.

    Let’s look at another more difficult example where a candidate does not use paragraphs and has not fully answered the question but that they overall have a good general level of ability in English when it comes to grammar and vocabulary. In this example,  suppose that the candidate scores as follows:
    • Task Response: 5 - (Candidate did not answer the question fully and they only answered half of it)
    • Coherence: 5 - (Candidate did not use paragraphs)
    • Lexical Resource: 7 - (Candidate used vocabulary well and used some less common terms)
    • Grammar: 7 - (Candidate has a mix of sentences with ability to use complex sentences as well)

    This candidate’s total score would be 5+5+7+7 = 24  
    This score would be 24 divided by 4 to give a final score of 6.

    As you should be able to see, good grammar and vocabulary are not enough; candidates must focus on all the criteria as they write. To get a target score of 6.5 (which is the minimum score for many universities); candidates need to get a 7 in at least three of the four criteria. As we will see, there are some things like not being able to write enough that will really negatively affect your Task Response score and we will, in future posts look at all the grading criteria in more detail but I hope you can see that the criteria are not simple. Task response for example is not only about answering the question, it also measures candidate ability to extend and support main ideas and maintain a clear position throughout the essay. 

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    Speaking - Tips to Improve your Speaking Score

    Candidates often make the same kinds of mistakes; try to make sure you get the best score possible by improving your score in the IELTS test. Candidates need to be aware of and should focus on the following: 

    1. Understand how the speaking test is graded (look at my overview of the speaking test); or a quick description is given below - your speaking is graded based on:
    • Fluency and coherence – speak freely at a normal speed and be easy to understand.
    • Vocabulary - use higher level words and show ability to paraphrase and use some idiomatic language
    • Grammar - Use a variety of sentence types (simple, compound, complex) and also avoid grammatical errors
    • Pronunciation – does your pronunciation make your speech hard to understand? Can you use language features that a native speaker might use such as intonation, stress, and rhythm.

    2. Prepare for and practice common questions that are asked (Look at my Blog post on general speaking topics

    3. Learn ways to structure your  answer, especially for the second part of the speaking test (the long turn). This part should have an introduction, body and conclusion in the one to two minutes that is allowed. Practice speaking for one to two minutes with your friends and Look at my Blog post on general speaking topics. I will add a specific Blog post on Part 2 of the speaking test soon!

    4. When you’re asked a question, try to answer it without repeating the whole question in your answer. 

    For example:
    Examiner:  ‘What's the most interesting thing about your hometown?’
    Candidate: ‘The most interesting thing about my hometown is…’ = BAD ANSWER

    A better answer would be:
    Candidate:  “My hometown’s Bangkok”  and then you can expand on your answer, if possible, by adding something like: “Most people find it an interesting place because…’

      5. Improve your accent – make sure you can make all sounds correctly (th, l, r,sh/ch and especially the ends of words) and also practice sounding natural with word stress, intonation, and connected speech Record yourself and listen to how you sound. Are you speaking too slowly? Are you speaking too quickly? Let a native speaker give you some feedback on the way you speak. 

      6. Improve your spoken grammar – correct any frequent errors.  Get a native speaker give you some feedback on your grammar; use of tenses and subject/verb agreement, use of articles etc

      7. Broaden your vocabulary learn and use the more difficult vocabulary to improve your score such as the more idiomatic vocabulary that is shown in some of my other Blog posts

      8. Be able to paraphrase so that you can communicate the same idea using different words or sentence structures.

      9. Speak until the examiner stops you, don’t just answer the question and stop. Make sure  you demonstrate your best English. Do not give the examiner the opportunity to ask “why?” Make sure that you give the detail so that the examiner does not have to keep on prompting you. Do not give one word answers!

      10. Don’t memorise or rote learn whole speeches. It is so obvious when a candidate learns a script and then just starts to recite it. The examiner will just change the topic to something else if a candidate does this (believe me, it is so obvious when candidate recite a script of rote learned English